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Opinion Tackling the agriculture industry’s mental-health crisis starts with farmers like us

Lesley Kelly is a farmer based in Saskatchewan and the co-founder of Do More Ag.

The dream was always to come back to the family farm.

The opportunity came to return in 2011, when my husband, Matt, and I moved from Alberta back to Saskatchewan when I got a position at Farm Credit Canada in Regina. Our plan – a short-term sacrifice, we thought – was to live in Regina so I could work at a job I loved, and Matt could commute to the farm at Watrous, Sask., about two hours north of Regina. And so we farm with my parents and brother on our 6,500-acre grain farm.

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It wasn’t easy, even before the farm fell under hard times. We endured excessive moisture and flooding which decreased our acres, hurt our yields and affected our bottom line. We started a couple of businesses to ease the financial stress, adding emotional stress, and the long days and nights of the planting season took their toll. I began to experience the symptoms of baby blues, a form of postpartum depression, from the birth of our second child in 2015; Matt lives with anxiety, and started having panic attacks.

Still, we supported each other and talked openly about our issues. We’re stronger today for it. But when he and I shared a live video two summers ago at our home in Regina, talking openly about our mental-health journey, one response still stands out today, a sentiment I’ve sadly heard more than once: “If you can’t handle the stress of farming – get out.”

When we see smoke when a combine or a barn is burning, farmers know our neighbours are quick to run to lend a hand. But we’re still not at a place where we can be sure that the same is true during mental-health challenges.

Matt and I knew we were hardly alone in our stress: Trade barriers, financial hardships, weather, isolation, succession and transition of the farm, relationships and more are hurting the community around us. Studies bear that out: Research from the University of Guelph has found that 40 per cent of Canadian agricultural producers are uneasy seeking help for mental illness because of what others may think; 58 per cent of our farmers meet the standard for anxiety and 35 per cent for depression. And on Tuesday, a federal parliamentary committee report acknowledged that farmers are more prone to mental illnesses compared with other Canadians, recommending training, better internet access and Criminal Code tweaks. Indeed, more professional supports that understand the unique demands on farmers that are available online, by telephone or by text, will help bridge the gap.

But demand for mental-health support far exceeds supply, and is even harder to access in rural and farming communities. If you have livestock or are in the midst of planting or a harvest, a health-care appointment hours away isn’t always feasible.

This scarcity is made worse by the stigma that remains in the community, fuelled by the idealized, romantic and ultimately toxic image of a stoic farmer who shows no signs of weakness. That stigma even made us worry about our own frank video: What if this makes lenders decide to reject our farms’ loans? What will our retailers think, will they service us? Will this affect our insurance? Will people approach our landlords, tell them we’re crazy and take our land?

None of those things happened. In fact, despite the odd hurtful statement, others shared their stories or were inspired to get help, while still others said they didn’t realize that was what anxiety and depression looked like.

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I know first-hand that conversations about mental health can change and save a life. I met a farmer at an event where mental health was part of the agenda. During the panel, he stood at the back and cried the entire time. Afterward, he came up and said, “I’d like to thank you.” I asked him why. He said, “You just saved my life. I am going to go home and talk to my wife.”

We’ve made great strides, but we still have a long way to go. Talking about mental health with a healthy support system is a start. This breaks the silence that so many are suffering in and helps to reduce the stigma and barriers that are attached to mental health and illness.

We need the knowledge, skills and confidence to step up, help ourselves and each other with mental health. Learning to recognize when someone is struggling, how to have those courageous conversations, making self a priority and how to be there in a supporting role are the next steps.

The agriculture industry is amazing because of our people – and right now, our people are hurting. We need to grab a bucket and shovel, and run to the combine fire.

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